Google+ is to Facebook what Facebook was to MySpace

By Matt Cornock

This series of posts will preview Google+ (Google Plus) and compare it to Facebook as a social networking platform. It primarily focuses on the differences in interface and functionality, but touches upon the user-aspect of whether Google+ will be adopted by the masses. Part 1 looks at what makes a social network. Part 2 will look at the idea of ‘circles’, with Part 3 on other functional improvements.

Google+ is a social network

Now you may think I’m stating the obvious here, but when you think ‘social network’ you think Facebook. So before we start talking about Google+ in the context of a social network, lets take a look at what Facebook actually involves these days:

  • Posting of statuses/items to a wall
  • Sharing of links/ideas (tying into websites via ‘Like’ button)
  • Messaging systems (mail equivalent and instant messaging chat)
  • Events management (inc RSVP)
  • Lists of friends
  • Photo and video uploading and tagging
  • Feeding information from other sources into Facebook via third-party apps
  • Corporate and ‘fan’ pages
  • Advertising based on demographic data
  • Third-party apps which may be useful, or not, may be practical or game-based

Essentially, Facebook is a data mine. Its commercial value comes from the data it owns (or rather you let it take from you) and the way apps can exploit that data for advertising. Its personal value to a user is the interactions it offers and a place for storing stuff.

At the moment Google+ offers the following:

  • Posting of statuses/items to a wall
  • Sharing of links/ideas (tying into websites and search results pages via ‘+1’ button, offers opportunity to see which friends have also +1ed)
  • Messaging systems (text and video-conferencing based)
  • Circles of friends
  • Photo and video uploading and tagging
  • Feeding information from selected sources natively

Its commercial value… well this is interesting, again there’s the data we may input, but Google+ at the moment isn’t exposed to third party apps who mine this data, nor does it currently have advertising or ‘page’ features to allow company’s to create a fanbase. Its personal value however is exactly like Facebook: interaction and a place for storing stuff.

So, without the commercial interventions of adverts, corporate presences and pages, this makes Google+ more about the people and hence more a social network than Facebook.

Google+, Facebook, MySpace

Remember MySpace? It still exists, and is still the domain of music-types. However, many MySpace users have shifted to Facebook. One of the reasons, from my point of view, was that MySpace became an ugly embodiment of early 2000s web design – flashy .gif animation backgrounds, scrolling text and hideous colour schemes that users were able to get their mucky paws on through profile customisation. When Facebook originally came along, it was a slick, single-colour scheme outfit. It looked clean and approachable and personalisation was through content (statuses, photos, etc).

Now though, Facebook has regressed. It is framed on the left by lists of apps people have shoved on their profile and framed on the right by perpetual advertising for credit cards, casinos and loans – except if you’ve added enough personal information you may get something more specific to your taste. The content which originally made Facebook personal, has now been flooded with company promotional pages and promotional wall posts. If bad design and lack of personal content was the downfall of MySpace, then over-commercialisation may be the downfall of Facebook.

Google+ is admittedly in its early stages, and shows some similarity to the way Facebook was – its no advert, no frills, simple communication and sharing tool screams of users being able to offer their own content again and not be swamped by impersonal features. In Facebook, I didn’t really care about XYZ winning 10k points on some jewel-based game, I wanted to know how they are and what they’d been up to – but I have to filter all the inane posts out to find the ones I want. Google is the expert in filtering out irrelevant information in its search engine, and in a way this is reflected in the way that Google+ has gone back to the basics of what a social network is. Filtering out social communication for an individual. Its people-focus, I will touch upon later, in particular about the way friends are categorised by circles and the way that the +1 system will enable like-minded individuals to shape the way we view the web (think peer-review on a mass scale).

A social network without the network

The problem that Google+ faces, is that with the millions of users using Facebook, why would a user decide to make the switch to Google+. Perhaps we shouldn’t even talk about Google+ and Facebook as mutually exclusive. Indeed, Google+ has the facility to link to your Facebook account and it may be possible perhaps in the future to do the reverse. However, why should a user who has perhaps 200 friends on Facebook, 1000 photos and a handful of videos, be willing to make the first steps to start using Google+?

At the moment Google+ is populated by the ‘keen ones’, those who are interested in the web, those perhaps disenchanted with Facebook and those who want to make sure they’re well promoted online. What about the late adopters to Facebook, the 40-70 age group who are using Facebook to keep in contact with their family – what is it that would encourage them to move to Google+? The answer: only if their family made the move too. This is the same for groups of friends. The shift would almost require an informal collective decision to move to Google+.

The drivers for such a move may be the simple functionality, clean interface and ‘uncluttered’ approach Google+ has. This would certainly appeal to those not confident in computing, where Facebook’s mass of icons, terminology and general volume of small text on the page is an immediate psychological threat. Google+ still uses obscure terminology, but there is less of it! Secondly, the functionality of Google+ to include circle-based ‘hangouts’ which are browser-based video conferences in a much slicker way that is possible elsewhere may also be a key selling point. Finally, if we take the big assumption that more and more people (and even educational institutions) will be using Google’s other services such as Gmail, Google Docs and YouTube, then the Google+ profile is simply an extension to those already well-used tools.

I think though, that one of the big blockers to Google+ adoption may be the amount of investment users have made in Facebook. Think about the posts, photos and videos uploaded – and their associated tagging, comments, etc. If there is a shift to Google+, people would have to either let go of their past (very rare) or else perceive their Facebook as a historical digital archive. That said, there are many sites which users have signed up for and never used again – will Facebook suffer the same fate? It’s not even been a decade, but Facebook seems to dominate the internet (see previous post), yet at the same time its collossal dominance and commercial nature may be its downfall. However, one thing is certain: the number of accounts on Facebook won’t decrease. Unlike Google+, you can’t delete your Facebook account, only deactivate it.

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